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- Earning six figures as a freelancer is no easy feat, but freelance graphic designer Morgan Overholt says focusing on advice from successful professionals helped her cultivate a lucrative business on the platform Upwork.
- Don’t let your lack of experience keep you from pursuing new types of work. Instead, put in the time and effort to learn a useful, marketable skill.
- Present yourself as an expert with a pristine and optimized Upwork profile, short cover letters, and effective proposals.
- While it’s important to be kind and accommodating when meeting with clients, it’s also critical to put your foot down when discussing rates and noticing red flags.
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Three and a half years ago, I quit a job that I’d grown to hate to pursue a career as a full-time freelancer and business owner.
It was my brother-in-law who initially introduced me to freelancer marketplace Upwork. But the road to building a successful and lucrative living on the platform wasn’t exactly easy. In fact, when I was just starting out, I read horror stories online from dejected freelancers about how it was impossible to find quality jobs.
Fast forward to today, and I’ve made over $300,000 as a professional graphic designer on Upwork.
One of the biggest keys to my success was choosing to ignore those who told me that it couldn’t be done and instead focus on the advice of talented Upwork professionals who were already making a killing on the platform.
Now it’s time for me to pass the torch to other Upwork hopefuls and share some of the best tips and tricks that I, along with other six-figure Upwork freelancers, are using on a daily basis to find quality clients and achieve success in our freelance careers.
Business financial make money capital trading Don’t make excuses, just get to work
Over the years, I’ve noticed that many freelancing hopefuls cite a lack of experience or professional training as an excuse that prevents them from getting started.
But the truth is, there are several industries that require no professional training or certifications — just a willingness to learn.
Zach Stevens, a Salesforce architect in Los Angeles, is perhaps one of the best examples of a self-taught professional now making a killing on the platform — to the tune of $450,000 in lifetime billings, at an average of $150,000 per year.
Four years ago, Stevens was working as a driver for Postmates and Uber Eats. He was introduced to the world of Salesforce and Upwork while listening to podcasts on his delivery routes.
“A quick Google search showed an average of 600 Salesforce-related jobs posted on Upwork each month and only 20 to 50 proposal submissions on each,” Stevens said. “I liked these odds, so I made a profile.”
He said that he didn’t have any experience in Salesforce architecting before starting on Upwork. “Salesforce has a great online learning platform called Trailhead, which is where I’ve learned most things that I know. I’m 100% self-taught,” he added.
At the six-month mark, Stevens was earning enough income on Upwork to make a living for himself and quit driving for delivery services altogether.
Select a field of interest and do your homework. Your capacity to redefine your career and learn a new trade might just surprise you.
Business financial make money capital trading Optimize your profile with keywords and robust information
When browsing the profiles of top-ranked high earners on Upwork, you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: Their profiles are complete and robust.
Your public profile is a carefully curated body of work. After all, it’s often the first thing a client sees when selecting a freelancer for hire, and your ability to make a great first impression is crucial to landing the job.
Components of a great Upwork profile generally include:
- A professional headshot
- A descriptive title
- A brief bio with a description of services
- Your preferred hourly rate
- Testimonials and reviews
- A portfolio
- A list of skills
- A list of certifications
- An employment history
Freelancer Francisco Lora, a WordPress web designer, has earned over $140,000 on Upwork and said a well thought out profile has been one of the greatest keys to his success. Lora originally signed up for Upwork over five years ago, but only decided to pursue it actively in 2018.
“I gain the client’s trust by focusing on the small details on my Upwork profile,” Lora said. “That includes a video of myself and making sure my work is up to date and verifiable.”
Alyssa Goulet, a copywriter, content strategist, and six-figure Upwork freelancer, suggested going a step further by optimizing your profile with targeted keywords.
“Use keywords potential clients are searching for,” Goulet said. “This will make it easier for them to discover and reach out to you.”
For instance, Goulet lists her title as “Copywriter, Technology Writer, SEO Writer, and Content Marketing” — all terms she knows clients in her niche would use when searching for a freelancer of her talents.
Business financial make money capital trading Set a baseline income goal and remember to scale it up as you gain more experience
One of the biggest challenges freelancers face is not knowing how much to charge.
Personally, I focused on what I needed to earn to make freelancing a viable option.
I knew I needed to at least produce an income equivalent to my old salary ($75,000 per year, which roughly equates to $35 per hour when working 40-hour weeks) on the low end just to pay my bills. I also knew that number was well within the industry average range for an experienced graphic designer.
Sheri Baker, a content writer who’s earned nearly $200,000 on Upwork, advised freelancers to simply set a goal and work backward.
Baker, like many other freelancers, originally signed up for Upwork six years ago, but only made it her primary source of income in 2020, in large part due to the pandemic. Almost half of Baker’s $200,000 Upwork income has been earned in just the last 12 months.
“Whatever your goal is, set it and determine what you need to do to get there,” Baker said. “For instance, if I want to make $100,000 a year writing blog posts, I need to charge $500 per blog post and write 17 blog posts per month (four to five per week). 17 blog posts x $500 x 12 months = $102,000. It’s that simple.”
She added that when she first started on Upwork, online freelancing only represented about 10% of her income, “with 90% coming from local, on-site opportunities.”
“This year especially, I’ve found that Upwork is the best place to find the flexibility I need as we face COVID-19 and school closures,” she said. “Now it’s flipped — 90% of my work is coming from Upwork, with about 10% coming from clients off of the platform.”
And don’t forget to continuously re-evaluate those rates and move the goal post for yourself. While many Upwork freelancers tend to start at a low-end rate, the best professionals are able to scale up quickly.
Goulet, for instance, started out on Upwork at less than $10 an hour. Today, she earns $125 an hour.
“Even if you start with no experience and a low rate, you don’t have to stay there … You deserve to charge more as you gain experience,” she said. “If you aren’t doing this, you’re leaving cash on the table.”
Business financial make money capital trading Write concise and tailored proposals to clients
Part of being a successful freelancer is learning how to present yourself as a knowledgeable professional who understands the needs of your client.
Even as an experienced graphic designer, I struggled with landing that first job on Upwork. I had to create five to 10 proposals every single day for two weeks before I got my first “nibble.”
Make your cover letters short and sweet. Aim for about 200 words or less and be sure to include the following components:
- Your professional qualifications and related experience
- Acknowledgement of the job requirements
- A unique selling point (or how you’re uniquely qualified for this specific job)
- Related portfolio samples
- A link to your website and/or a link to your Upwork bio
- A call to action (i.e., “Reach out to me today and we can discuss details.”)
For many, learning how to write an effective Upwork proposal requires a bit of trial and error.
This was certainly the case for Stevens when he was just getting started on the platform.
“It took about a month to get my first contract on Upwork,” Stevens said. “After failing my first few interviews, I changed my approach. I started explaining to clients that I am so sure I can do the work they need that if I don’t deliver it by the deadline, then I won’t bill them for the project. That approach started to gain traction.”
The key is getting that first review on the board. After that, each successive job becomes easier to acquire. Today, I almost never apply for jobs on Upwork — they all come to me.
Business financial make money capital trading Cultivate client relationships with kindness, transparency, and ‘concierge-level service’
One of the biggest secrets to my success is how I treat my clients. I see my clients like I see myself — as business owners in need of a professional to make their lives a little easier.
I offer a concierge-level service. I’m not just a graphic designer — I’m a problem solver, business advisor, and friend.
Two months ago, a client whom I’ve been working with for almost three years called me and asked me to be the project manager for a new website build and a high-profile subcontract with an IBM affiliate.
Why did they ask their freelance graphic designer to take on the role of project lead for such high-profile tasks? Because they’ve learned over the years that I’m excellent at getting things done.
I have another client that originally hired me on Upwork to make a $40 Mailchimp banner for his fragrance company. Three years later, I’m now in charge of almost every online aspect of his business.
Sure, these things are a bit outside of my normal responsibilities, but this is what a concierge-level service looks like.
“I’m kind and approachable,” said Lior Ronen, a financial consultant who’s earned over $150,000 on Upwork making $120 per hour on the platform. “At the end of the day, you’re doing business with people, and everyone wants to do business with the kind of person that they feel comfortable talking to.” Ronen has been on Upwork for three years. It currently represents about 30% of his annual income.
Transparency is also a key factor in cultivating those relationships, according to Baker, especially for a working mom like herself.
“If you’re a working parent, let your clients know just as your first call is starting (or even ahead of time) that part of the reason why you freelance is so you can be home with your children, and there is a good chance one will come running in to interrupt your meeting the second a scary Bubble Guppy pops up or someone steals someone’s sippy cup,” Baker said. “In six years, I have never met a single client on Upwork who minded when a child came running into the room during a call. In fact, it has a tendency to lighten the conversation and foster a closer working relationship.”
Cultivating these professional relationships also improves your odds of securing long-term contracts, which not only reduces the need to apply for more jobs but also creates a more predictable revenue stream, and lessons Upwork’s commission fee from 20% to as low as 5% (more on that later).
Business financial make money capital trading Trust your gut to recognize a bad client or doomed project before you start
We all know the feeling. Something about the client or the project sets off alarm bells in the back of your mind, and you just know that a successful outcome is unlikely, at best.
Over the years, I’ve grown quite picky about the projects I take on. I’ve learned to look for red flags in job posts, which include but are not limited to:
- Bad reviews
- Poorly written job descriptions
- Jobs that include the words “rush job”
- Demands for free/cheap/partially completed work
- Complaints about previous hires
Take this job invitation I received just last week for instance. “A pamphlet and cards please. Need some one to make it look a whole lot better,” the full job description reads.
For me, this brief and poorly written invitation tells me that the client’s communication skills are not strong enough for me to easily get a clear picture of the job at hand, or that at the very least the project will require extra time extrapolating details.
At the end of the day, I treat my freelance career like a small business. I expect both parties to behave professionally — this expectation promotes a higher probability for a successful outcome.
Business financial make money capital trading Quit worrying about fees and start thinking about ROI
People love to complain about Upwork fees. But while they’re busy complaining, top freelancers like me are focusing on return on investment (ROI).
On average, Upwork charges freelancers anywhere from $0.15 to $0.90 to apply for a job and takes a 20% commission on the first $500 earned with each new client that you work with on the platform. The commission drops to 10% after the first $500, and then drops again to just 5% after the first $10,000.
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That might seem like a lot of money, but compared to the average 40% commission charged by traditional recruiting agencies, a percentage that doesn’t traditionally tier over time, it’s nothing.
The difference being, when freelancers work for recruiting agencies, the fee is not transparent because the freelancer and client are asked not to discuss rates with one another. The agency can pay the freelancer just $19 an hour while charging the client $34 an hour, and neither party is the wiser.
To make matters worse, at least in my experience, the agency isn’t vetting the freelancers as promised.
Upwork offers not only built-in vetting in the form of reviews and identity checks but also payment protection should conflict arise.
Today, I have no need to apply for jobs, and my average fee has dropped to about 8%. Essentially, I’m getting a 92% ROI out of Upwork, and they not only provide a giant pool of potential jobs, they also handle my contracts and invoicing.